In the past few years, the “gig economy” business model (workers are classified as independent contractors and therefore have no basic employment rights) has been tried out worldwide.
From Uruguay and the United States to Australia and France, couriers and drivers pose legal challenges to food delivery and passenger transportation companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Deliveroo, arguing that they should be entitled to employment protection as “workers” or “employees”, for example Minimum wage, paid holidays and the right to join a trade union.
The UK has always been one of the main battlefields for such cases, and for companies, things are not going well: in fact, they have lost every high-profile workers’ rights case against them.
And last week, they lost again. In a landmark ruling issued on February 19, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled that Uber drivers belong to the legal category of “physical (b) workers”, giving them the right to employment.
The court held that “the transportation service performed by the driver and provided to the passengers through the Uber app is strictly defined and controlled by Uber… [It] The design and organization of Uber is designed to provide passengers with standardized services. In this service, drivers are considered interchangeable, and Uber, rather than individual drivers, obtains the benefits of customer loyalty and goodwill. “
For people who have used Uber before, this assessment is not shocking. The decision is not surprising, because Uber has lost the case for three consecutive times before the case reaches the Supreme Court. However, this decision still has a significant impact on workers.
“Gig economy” companies usually let people who work for them sign highly complex contracts, designed to make them look like independent entrepreneurs rather than employees of the company. When issues are brought to court, these companies rely on these contracts to defend their cases. These contracts are the key to the operation of the “gig economy” because they are the main mechanism for companies to try to conceal the dizzying and obvious facts that they are hiring workers and telling them how to do the work, but refusing to give them basic wages . Employment rights and protection.
The Supreme Court dealt with this issue in its latest ruling against Uber. In particular, it believes that courts and tribunals should not use these contracts as the starting point for their analysis, because “employers generally have the ability to stipulate such contract terms” and “the person doing this work has little or no ability to perform these obligations. Affect those terms”.
As a result of Uber’s decision, it will now be more difficult for employers to use contracts to misclassify workers and deprive them of their basic rights. This means that any attempt by Uber to succumb to the decision by changing the contract (as the company has already implied) is almost hopeless in court.
In its ruling against Uber last week, the Supreme Court also emphasized its commitment to ensure that laws passed by Congress (in this case designed to protect vulnerable workers from exploitative employers) are fully implemented.
The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has strengthened the role of Parliament for some time.
In 2017, the court ruled that despite the Brexit referendum, the then British Prime Minister Theresa May could not take the UK out of the EU without a parliamentary bill. Later that year, the court abolished the employment court’s fee system and pointed out that if people did not unhindered access to the court to demand enforcement of laws passed by parliament, “democratic elections of parliament members may become meaningless. charade “.
In 2019, several weeks after Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to close Congress, the Supreme Court ruled that the decision was illegal. Indeed, in recent years, although some people have carried out a Brexit movement to defend the sovereignty of Parliament, it is on the surface a hypocritical feature of British politics, but in fact, the Supreme Court, not the Brexit government, is in power. The most staunch defender of the institution.
With the latest decision on the Uber Cup, the Supreme Court issued a message to all British workers that it will not allow the performance economy companies to trample on employment rights and the protection provided by the law for their elected representatives.
The impact of this decision may also be felt outside the UK.
For example, some of the workers’ rights considered by the Supreme Court in its ruling last week came from EU law. In EU law, various employment rights, such as paid holidays, equal pay for men and women, and freedom from discrimination, all apply to “workers”, which are legal categories with the same definition in the 27 EU member states. Therefore, considering whether Uber drivers are “workers” in the UK, this fact is persuasive to courts across the European Union.
From Europe to India, from the United States to the United States, the decision is hailed as a symbolic precedent for regulators and courts.
Although employment laws differ between countries, Uber’s defense in worker rights cases is usually the same: it claims to be a technology company, not a transportation company, and an intermediary between the driver and the passenger. The six judges of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom unanimously rejected this absurd statement, which may provide persuasiveness for courts all over the world to argue on the same issue.
In the United States, state and federal laws have multiple definitions of “employee”. However, when deciding whether the worker is entitled to the right of employment, the court often takes the company’s control over the worker as a key factor. Therefore, the British Supreme Court’s extensive discussion of how Uber controls its drivers may help drivers to debate cases throughout the pond.
In Australia, Uber has successfully defended itself from several legal challenges related to workers’ rights (although Uber has resolved the most high-profile of these challenges after being recently condemned by a federal court judge). However, one of the lawyers representing Uber drivers in the United Kingdom, Sheryn Omeri, also practises in Australia, said that the ruling of the British Supreme Court will have an impact on future Australian cases. She told me that the British court’s decision was “the obvious choice for Australia”.
It is important to note that the judiciary, workers, and trade unions cannot act alone when regulating the “large-scale economy.” The government must force companies to comply with the law through prosecution and fines. In fact, the British government has a particularly bad record in this area, which makes the role of trade unions even more important. But with the decision last week, the developmental “gig economy” business model has been hit decisively. For this, couriers, drivers and unions all over the world should celebrate.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.